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Compelling, but ...

'Under Suspicion' showcases fine talent, faulty tale


In this story:

Two great actors

Tough questions

RELATED SITES icon



(CNN) -- Filmed plays aren't movies. They're filmed plays. Any adaptation of a stage vehicle is bound to suffer from a lack of movement, or dialogue that's so full of well-timed enlightenment it sounds like the writer's greatest hits instead of real people conversing.

When two characters are made to debate each other in a single location for much of a film's running time, the director also has to come up with artificial ways to give the story a bit of breathing room, and the effort always stands apart from the rest of the film.

"Under Suspicion," a psychosexual murder mystery starring Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, is fairly intriguing while containing all the expected drawbacks of a stage adaptation. But the ending, which makes a certain thematic sense, is close to ludicrous.

Hackman and Freeman are the film's executive producers, and it's easy to see why they'd be interested in bringing this story to the screen. They're very possibly our most gifted living actors, and they're old enough to remember when good screenplays came along more often than every 20 or 30 weeks.

In those days, Hackman, in particular, was often invited to participate in the production. Now, though, he's forced to perform with world-famous pieces of plywood like Keanu Reeves and Kevin Costner.

Two great actors

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"Under Suspicion" is nothing if not a huge chunk of meat for two brilliant performers to chew on. Hackman gets the best role, though he and Freeman have a wry rapport with one another.

If movie history teaches us anything, it's that an exotic country's gaudiest street festival always camouflages treachery by Americans in sweat-stained suits.

"Under Suspicion" takes place during a seasonal carnival in Puerto Rico. Hackman plays Henry Hearst, a wealthy tax attorney. Henry admits that he's a mediocre man who -- from outward appearances, anyway -- scored big in the sweepstakes of life. His uninteresting profession brings in truckloads of money, and his wife, Chantal (Monica Bellucci), is gorgeous beyond reason. When we first lay eyes on Chantal, she's zipping herself into a slinky black evening gown. All Bellucci has to do during most of the movie is look like an expensive, well-dressed lollipop, and she performs the task with great assurance.

Henry and Chantal are preparing to leave for a black-tie dinner where Henry will give a speech imploring the guests to donate money to a hurricane relief fund. But he suddenly receives a phone call from Capt. Victor Benezet (Freeman), a police detective who's investigating the murders of two prepubescent girls.

Apparently, Henry, who discovered one of the bodies, has already been interrogated by Benezet and his young partner, Detective Owens (Thomas Jane.) The police station is conveniently located directly across the street from the hotel where Henry will be delivering his speech, with the carnival symbolically separating the two locations.

So Henry drops Chantal off at dinner, telling her that he has to answer a few more questions for the cops before he can take his seat.

Tough questions

It won't be that easy, of course. There are gaping holes in Henry's story. Even though Benezet seems to have known him for years, he still thinks that this elegant, well-to-do man is responsible for the killings. The interrogation starts off with a lot of Hackman-to-Freeman joshing, but things eventually get dark and very, very nasty.

Henry keeps trying to break away so that he can go deliver his speech, and Benezet keeps retaining him with a barrage of difficult-to-answer questions. A video camera is set up, and, after being allowed to perform his duties at the party, Henry plunges into the worst night of his life.

The details of Henry's day-to-day existence are sleazy in relatively common ways, though that doesn't make them any more admirable. However, he's soon dealing with things that could ruin his standing in the community.

Chantal, who no longer sleeps with him, suspects that he has a predilection for extremely young girls. Henry admits to appreciating teen-age beauty, arguing that every man lusts after fresh-faced high schoolers to some degree. He won't admit, however, to raping and killing two schoolchildren.

After a while, it becomes clear that the movie isn't about Henry so much as it's about the dark impulses in every man, no matter how in control he seems to be. In that respect, it works pretty well.

Unfortunately, the interrogation is intercut with flashbacks to Henry's alibi. Director Stephen Hopkins, in an attempt to give the picture a little bit of oomph, inserts whooshing transitional sound effects and oddly tinkered-with film speeds. The results smack of desperation.

In any event, what you're looking at is nothing more than a visual representation of what Hackman is already telling us; not much is gained from the effort.

Freeman is his usual rock-steady self, and Hackman is terrific as always. The only performer who doesn't cut it is Jane. He glares at Hackman as if he's about to eat him for dinner, and the moments when the two men get physical with each other are oddly amusing. Jane is trying too hard, an approach that any young actor might take when playing scenes with performers of this stature.

"Under Suspicion" isn't a waste of time. It's just too tawdry to be completely entertaining, and too static to generate much excitement.

There's profanity, sex with prostitutes, rape, child murder, and an overall nasty vibe running throughout "Under Suspicion." It's an honorable effort that doesn't really cut it. Rated R. 110 minutes.



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Under Suspicion


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